Help pack a million meals for struggling seniors on Sept. 11. Volunteer today


AARP Staying Sharp: Keep Your Brain Healthy


The tablet with free 24/7 customer support. Learn More


Military and Veterans Discount


AARP’s Picture Your Retirement Sweepstakes

Enter the $50K Picture Your Retirement Sweepstakes. Ends 8/31/15. No purchase necessary. Enter for Official Rules.


AARP Games - Play Now!


Learn From the Experts

Sign up now for an upcoming webinar or find materials from a past session.


Planning for Long-Term Care for Dummies

Get expert advice on planning for your own or a relative’s future care needs.

Learning centers

Get smart strategies for managing health conditions.



Heart Disease


Most Popular


Should You Have a PSA Test for Prostate Cancer?

Handling new recommendations against PSA testing

En español | A federal panel of experts is advising that men without symptoms should not be screened for prostate cancer with a common blood test. After decades of being urged to schedule an annual PSA test, this recommendation left men bewildered and many doctors critical.

Sign up for AARP's Health Newsletter.

In its most recent statement, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force panel concluded that the harms of screening for prostate cancer outweigh the benefits and that screening can lead to unnecessary testing and procedures, such as prostate surgery or radiation therapy. Further, for men 50 to 69, the evidence is convincing that screening does not save lives, the panel noted.

The PSA blood test measures the amount of prostate-specific antigen, a protein produced by the prostate and released into the bloodstream. If prostate cancer develops and grows, PSA levels rise. However, normal results on a PSA test don't always mean that cancer is absent and abnormal results don't always indicate its presence. Infections or benign enlargement of the prostate can also cause elevated PSA levels.

"Like any screening test, a PSA test doesn't make or break the diagnosis of prostate cancer. It simply points to the need for further evaluation," says oncologist Andrew Lee, M.D., of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Medicare currently covers one PSA test a year for men age 50 and over.

Pros and cons of screening

The downside of screening is that the test itself can cause problems. Some 70 percent of positive results are false positives — that is, the test mistakenly red-flags the presence of cancer. The only way to tell if it's cancer is a with a prostate-tissue biopsy.

Even if a biopsy shows that prostate cancer is present, the tumor may be so slow-growing and low-risk that it poses no risk to a man's health. Yet a recent study shows that even false-positive results have psychological consequences, including overestimating the likelihood of developing the disease and impaired sexual functioning.

But many physicians are critical of the task force statement. "None of us would dispute that there are harms with screening for prostate cancer, just as there are for screening for any other cancer," says Cleveland Clinic urologist Andrew Stephenson, M.D. "But the task force fails to acknowledge the benefits, which are clear."

The failure of screening is in part due to the limitations of the PSA test itself, notes Stephenson. "The PSA test is good at identifying who has cancer and who doesn't. But it's not good at identifying who has a cancer that should be treated and who has a cancer that won't pose a threat to a man's well-being and survival." The problem is overdiagnosis, which leads to treating a tumor that would never pose a problem.

"Overdiagnosis is harmful if it's linked to treatment," he says. In his practice, half of the men referred to him with a diagnosis of prostate cancer are treated conservatively with "active surveillance" (aka watchful waiting), a strategy of forgoing immediate treatment in favor of regularly scheduled testing and clinical exams to monitor the disease closely.

Next: Are you at higher risk? >>

Topic Alerts

You can get weekly email alerts on the topics below. Just click “Follow.”

Manage Alerts


Please wait...

progress bar, please wait

Tell Us WhatYou Think

Please leave your comment below.


Discounts & Benefits

From companies that meet the high standards of service and quality set by AARP.

Walgreens 1 discount membership aarp

Members can earn 50 points per $1 spent on select health & wellness products at Walgreens.

member benefit aarp hear usa

Members save 15% on easy listening devices and more at the HearUSA Hearing Shop.

Eye Med 4 Membership Benefit AARP Discount

Members save up to 60% on eye exams and 30% on glasses at Target Optical.

Membership Benefits Discounts Email Genius

Brain boost? Get AARP email for access to memory exercises & more that help you focus.

Rewards for Good

Your Points Balance:

Learn More

Earn points for completing free online activities designed to enrich your life.

Find more ways to earn points

Redeem your points to save on merchandise, travel, and more.

Find more ways to redeem points